Reviewed By Brett Gallman
Posted 07/22/14 13:54:01

"A masterwork 12 years in the making."
5 stars (Awesome)

I was 18 and on the verge of my high school graduation when Richard Linklater started production on “Boyhood,” which is coincidentally where the film leaves its subject, Mason (Ellar Coltrane). By that time, we’ve watched twelve years of his life unfold over the course of 160 minutes, and it’s not the profound changes that amaze so much as Linklater’s ability to capture the authenticity of this moment: the excitement, the anxiety, the sheer relief of having made it through childhood and adolescence relatively unscathed. All of this resonated within me even with the distance of the twelve years I experienced since 2002—perhaps, more than anything, “Boyhood” is a reminder that life is sometimes just about finding a place where you can simply be okay even after being presented evidence that things won’t always be okay.

Capturing that very specific sentiment is one of Linklater’s several miracles, the greatest of which perhaps being the very idea of “Boyhood”: a film shot over the course of twelve years, it follows Mason from the age of six to eighteen and captures a somewhat tumultuous journey with a rotating cast of step-fathers, friends, and homes, with only his mother (Patricia Arquette) and sister (Lorelai Linklater) providing a sense of stability. Even the father after whom he was named (Ethan Hawke) drifts in and out of his life to take the kids to baseball games or on camping trips.

But Linklater wisely avoids dwelling on the drama—in fact, he doesn’t dwell on much of anything, as “Boyhood” glides like memory. It’s not quite stream-of-consciousness but has a similar effect in the way the episodes flit from small moments (like Mason overhearing a fight between his mother and her latest boyfriend) to bigger ones (like his mother’s decision to move the family to Houston), with each acting as a masterful snapshot of the characters involved.

One of the most intimate moments finds Mason asking his father if there’s any “real magic” in the world, and it perfectly encapsulates “Boyhood” as a whole: it’s a lovely little exchange that’s sweet, funny, and absolutely poignant: you sense here that Mason—who is approaching ten years old at this point—is suddenly beginning to realize the world isn’t always perfect and wonderful (the scene is contrasted by an earlier vignette where Mason and his sister attend the midnight release of the latest “Harry Potter” book dressed out in full Hogwarts regalia).

The most formative stretch of Mason’s life is likely to blame for this realization, and it doubles as the film’s only real stab at a sustained narrative over the course of several years. In an effort to better her family’s situation, Mason’s mom decides to pursue a degree in psychology at a community college (a choice that also allows Linklater to thread in several nods to conditioning since “Boyhood” also serves as a psychological portrait), where she meets and falls for her professor (Marco Perella). The two wed and eventually form an extended family with his two children, only to see it all go to hell as he becomes an increasingly abusive alcoholic. Easily the film’s heaviest, thorniest patch, this subplot provides plenty of possible dramatic pitfalls, yet Linklater nimbly angles around them and resists the urge to yield to overly-manipulative melodrama or big, showy performances.

Most tellingly, when this episode is over, it’s over. The family escapes the step-father’s tyrannical rule and makes cursory references to it years later (especially when the mother falls for another asshole during Mason’s teenage years). Because that’s life, you know? You pick up your pieces, move on, and continue to grow. Linklater’s unique structure especially captures how breathlessly life can pass by—one hour, Mason is a wide-eyed kid wondering about the nature of animals, the next he’s on the precipice of adolescent slackerhood.

And yet, you feel all of the miles he accumulates, particularly once he begins to mature. His physical changes are immediately staggering but only tell half the story, as Linklater and Coltrane explore how chaotic adolescence can be emotionally and psychologically. Mason’s personality shifts drastically from year-to-year here: we watch him hang out with friends, sip beers, fling around razor blades, and put on a macho posture about the girls he’s already bedded. Before long, he’s become a more soulful, artistic soul in a full-on goth phase: painted fingernails, long hair concealing his eyes. Eventually, he settles into something a little more authentic and truer to himself once he discovers a passion for photography, which leads him to his first meaningful relationship with a girl (Zoe Graham) and a plan for college during an arc that also stretches over multiple years and provides more life lessons.

I know that sounds sentimental and corny as hell, but “Boyhood” never resorts to cloying, weepy displays. Linklater has rarely been interested in such an approach, and few directors can match his ability to craft films that are so easygoing yet so profound all at once. “Boyhood” is a triumph in this regard: as it breezes by, it feels like it should be slight because it often feels so undramatic—only the scene where Mason and his family leave the abusive stepfather feels climactic in any way; otherwise, the film is so elliptical as to elude typical expectations, a structure that’s true-to-life.

Just as Mason Sr. insists that life doesn’t “give you bumpers” when his son whines during a trip to the bowling alley, “Boyhood” reminds us that life also doesn’t exactly provide a narrative framework. Instead, it’s a collection of various moments—some large, some small, all somehow significant in their buildup. Life sprawls and refuses to conform to an expected beat, and “Boyhood” sees that through to its final frame—it doesn’t end so much as it simply drifts away and leaves you with the impression that Mason is actually just getting started. You won’t need Linklater to start production on “Manhood” to know Mason is going to be fine—in some ways, I suppose the audience becomes surrogate parents for Mason, as you begin to feel both anxious and proud about the man he’s set to become.

“Boyhood” is engrossing on that level and so many more—it truly is a collection of minor miracles, from the stunningly affecting performances to its insightful musings on life. Most impressive is just how thoroughly entrenched Linklater and company are in this world. While the film is obviously funneled through Mason’s experiences, it’s truly a story about family, and one could easily imagine a film dedicated exclusively to the other members—that’s how rich and true the film feels.

Mason Sr. and his ex-wife feel like alternate universe versions of Jesse and Celine, and they grow and change just as much as their son over the course of the film. Arquette delivers one of the most quietly devastating performances in recent memory in a turn that sees her mature from a romantic firebrand to a more wearied cynic (an arc that reflects her son’s in many ways), while Hawke is charged with transforming from a GTO-driving manchild to a responsible dad driving a minivan. Growing up is a never-ending process of discarding pieces of yourself and your identity, something that’s well-reflected in Mason Sr. admitting his own lameness as an old friend is set to play a gig at a local dive. There are times when you wish the film could wander off and follow these characters exclusively, but the fact that you don’t need it speaks volumes about the film’s breadth, scope, and exactness.

Such world-building shouldn’t feel so effortless, and Linklater and his actors have such a command over their characters that they exist beyond “Boyhood,” which immediately asserts itself as one of the finest coming-of-age explorations ever made. Set against the majesty of various Texas landscapes (Linklater roves across the state’s regions as freely as he moves from year-to-year), it’s a big film about small people who grow before our eyes, with Mason especially emerging as a giant who has tackled and seized this phase of life. When it inevitably slips from his fingers, he’ll be ready to reclaim it.

Likewise, what started as an intriguing experiment has grown and blossomed into an incredible accomplishment under Linklater’s watch; to key in on and perhaps dismiss the approach as a gimmick is a disservice. Besides, the true special effect is the one that manages to elude so many empty, spectacle-laden pyrotechnics shows: life itself, which is the biggest, messiest, and most rewarding experience imaginable.

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